French Auteurs and July Books

On Film / The Daily — Jul 1, 2019
François Truffaut at work on Jules and Jim (1962)

We begin this month’s round with a focus on a few of the French critics and filmmakers who spent much of cinema’s first century contributing immeasurably to the way movies are made, viewed, and written about. Following last year’s collection of critical writing by Jacques Rivette from Post-Éditions, Editions de l’Œil has now published the first two volumes of Jean Epstein, écrits Complets, a project overseen by Nicole Brenez, Joël Daire, and Cyril Neyrat. Epstein was a secretary and translator for Auguste Lumière before becoming a filmmaker himself. His assistant director on two of his early films, Mauprat (1926) and The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), was Luis Buñuel.

By this point in his career, Epstein had begun writing about cinema, and his work as a film theorist is often associated with his development of the notion of photogénie, a complex concept related to the essence of cinema and its powerful effect on the viewer that some have found so slippery and abstract as to be of little contemporary use. But Sarah Keller, who has written the introduction to the first volume of Jean Epstein, écrits Complets and coedited a collection of English translations of Epstein’s work, has pointed out—in the virtual pages of the Belgian publication photogénie, no less—that “studies of Epstein are again enjoying a great deal of momentum.” And she adds that, as film historian and theorist Tom Gunning “has suggested, the current resurgence of attention to Epstein may be due to similarities between now and Epstein’s own historical context, a time within which there arose cinema’s ‘greatest moment of excitement and discovery—a period in which its possibilities seemed boundless and its implications yet to be theorized’: a moment ripe for shaping the terms of cinema’s technological and artistic claims.”

Epstein was only fifty-six when he died in 1953, one year before Cahiers du cinéma published François Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” a landmark text for what would become the politique des auteurs, and shortly thereafter, the French New Wave. As Richard Brody explains in the New Yorker, Truffaut, all of twenty-one at the time, was to have fleshed out his argument in Cahiers but was instead snapped up by “the popular, right-wing-leaning weekly” Arts Spectacles, where “he supplied his thoughts on the subject gradually, in more than four hundred articles and reviews.”

With Gallimard’s publication of Chroniques d’Arts Spectacles 1954-1958, we can see that Truffaut was less concerned during these years with the tenets of what we now refer to as auteurism than with the more practical matter of transforming the French film industry in such a way that would allow directors to make the sort of films that, in Truffaut’s young mind at the time, needed to be made. “In effect,” writes Brody, “criticism served Truffaut and his cohorts as an on-the-job version of film school, and the ‘auteurs’ whose movies they studied and praised were, in effect, their professors and their mentors on the path to making the kinds of films that they dreamed of.”

Truffaut dedicated his first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), to the influential critic and theorist André Bazin, who once argued that Jean-Pierre Melville introduced a set of directorial techniques that Robert Bresson then perfected. Understandably, the argument did not go down well with Melville. “The unflattering comparison with Bresson suggests genre prejudice—and perhaps other prejudices as well,” writes Adam Shatz in an outstanding essay for the London Review of Books sparked by the recent publication of Bertrand Teissier’s Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Solitaire and Antoine de Baecque’s Jean-Pierre Melville, une vie. “Melville, an atheist Jew, made polars, policiers, and political thrillers, while Bresson, a fervent Catholic, made arthouse films with spiritual ambitions. The grace which occasionally falls on Bresson’s characters never finds the underground conspirators in Melville. They live in a fallen world from which the only sanctuary is brotherhood, and the only escape death.”

Hollywood Stories

Writing for Bookforum, Rachel Syme revisits Gloria Swanson’s 1980 memoir Swanson on Swanson (1980): “Celebrity memoirs, at their best, read like opera: soaring, melodramatic, bathetic, false. But within this artifice there are moments of sublimity, full-throated arias that make you want to toss roses at the stage. Swanson’s memoir is jammed full of these moments. She was a woman who, throughout her life, had millions and millions of dollars, and champagne taste to match, and yet she makes you root for her as if she were a Dickensian changeling.” And the story behind the book is an eye-popper.

The reissue of Picture, Lillian Ross’s classic account of the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951), has already been mentioned in the April, May, and June roundups, and now, here we are again. But Andrew O’Hagan’s piece for the London Review of Books isn’t so much a review as a compelling, and to some degree, score-settling profile of Ross, with whom he’d been friends “for a few years.” His bottom line is that Picture is remembered and read today because “her meanness could be a vital energy in her writing.”

Another new book previously mentioned here is Frankly: Unmasking Frank Capra, in which Joseph McBride looks back on the obstacle course he had to run to see his book Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success finally published in 1992. McBride argues that Capra’s 1971 autobiography The Name Above the Title strays far and away from the truth. “All three books are outstanding and for very different reasons,” argues John McElwee. “McBride corrects and chastises Capra for perhaps good cause, but didn’t live the man’s life, and there’s beauty in The Name Above the Title, whatever its fudging with facts.”

Seventies and Eighties

Molly Haskell, Phillip Lopate, and David Thomson are among the contributors to a new collection, When the Movies Mattered: The New Hollywood Revisited, and Cornell University Press has recorded a conversation with editors Jonathan Kirshner and Jon Lewis. Among the topics that come up are two deals, MGM’s with Michelangelo Antonioni and Columbia’s with BBS Productions, the company founded by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner.

J. Hoberman has a chapter in the book as well, and tomorrow sees the release of his new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan. Hoberman has programmed a series of films that either star the future president—Don Siegel’s The Killers (1963), for example—or that helped shape his worldview—Rambo (1985), naturally, but also Being There (1979). Reagan at the Movies: Found Illusions is running at New York’s Metrograph through July 10, and another series highlighting several event movies from the 1980s will roll out at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in late August. “Hollywood was founded on the proposition that scenarios that are naturally hegemonic and usually reassuring will appeal to the largest possible audience,” writes Hoberman for the New York Review of Books. “Seamlessly merging the concept of ‘Freedom’ with the gospel of ‘Entertainment,’ Reagan was Hollywood incarnate, the embodiment of happy endings and uncomplicated emotions, with a built-in Production Code designed to suppress any uncomfortable truth. Reagan’s movie was America as America imagined itself.”

Excerpts

Once Upon a Time in the West: Shooting a Masterpiece is Christopher Frayling’s chronicle of the making of Sergio Leone’s 1969 classic, and the Spectator has posted an excerpt from Quentin Tarantino’s introduction. Composer Ennio Morricone “and Leone affected my films in every way, shape and form,” he writes. “I’ve always said that Pulp Fiction was a modern-day spaghetti western.”

For Room to Dream, Kristine McKenna has spoken with more than a hundred collaborators, family members, and friends of David Lynch, and chapter by chapter, Lynch offers his own responses and reflections. In an excerpt at the Quietus, Lynch looks back on the days leading up to his first feature. “Once I started working on Eraserhead, I stopped going to classes,” he writes, “but I’d go up from time to time to see a film. The projectionist in the big room at the AFI was a film buff beyond the beyond.” And then there was the day that theater director David Lindeman offered the names of two actors who might take on the lead role. “One of them was Jack Nance,” writes Lynch, “so I decided to meet Jack. With Eraserhead, the first person I met was the person I cast, every single one. It’s not like I would take just anybody, but they were all perfect.”

Interviews and Conversations

Literary Hub has brought Lili Anolik and Geoff Dyer together for a conversation about their new books. Hers is Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A., a portrait of the writer whose star is on the rise again, and his is Broadsword Calling Danny Boy: On Where Eagles Dare, a tribute to the 1968 World War II action movie he’s loved since he was a child. The film’s director, Brian G. Hutton, “was a very important guy to Eve Babitz,” notes Anolik. “I remember in one of the very first conversations I had with Eve, she talked about Brian, and she told me that he quit directing to become a plumber, and that his wife drove a solid gold Rolls Royce. A pretty colorful character.” In his book, Dyer writes that “Hutton’s stylistic signature as a director relies on the absence of anything that might permit us to recognize him as an auteur.”

On the Back of Our Images, Vol. I gathers Luc Dardenne’s production diaries and the screenplays for three of the films he’s directed with his brother, Jean-Pierre: The Son (2002), The Child (2005), and Lorna’s Silence (2008). In Newcity, Featherproof Books publisher Tim Kinsella, talking to Ray Pride, explains why it “took four years from the original contact until publication.” And for about half of one of those years, it seemed as if the project had fallen through, “and I thought maybe I’d sunk my business.”

At the Millions, Nick Ripatrazone talks with Sharon Marcus about her new book, The Drama of Celebrity. She suggests that “fandom can resemble or be a religious experience. Fans invest favorite celebrities with superhuman powers, just as believers do with gods. Just as many people find ways to connect to a god they will never see or touch, fans turn stars into imaginary friends.”

Joshua Gleich, the author of Hollywood in San Francisco: Location Shooting and the Aesthetics of Urban Decline, is Peter Labuza’s latest guest on the Cinephiliacs. After discussing his work as a historian, they delve into Blake Edwards’s Days of Wine and Roses (1962), in which a Bay Area couple (Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick) struggle with alcoholism.

Fiction and Poetry

In her new column for Film Comment, Sheila O’Malley is pleased to report that the recent publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, reveals the poet to be “an adventurous and voracious moviegoer . . . What thrilling new information about this picked-apart poet, about whom the ‘gaps’ and ellipses have led to so much speculation and rumor. This woman loved movies. She ate them up.” O’Malley offers “a brief smattering of Plath’s copious commentary on movies,” including films by Dreyer, Hitchcock, Eisenstein, and Teinosuke Kinugasa.

In Dominic Smith’s new novel, The Electric Hotel, pioneering silent-era director Claude Ballard, who once worked for the Lumière brothers, is living the quiet life in the Los Angeles of the early 1960s when a film history student approaches him with the intention of restoring his long-forgotten masterpiece, The Electric Hotel. In Claude, Smith “gives us a character who’s alive to the ways in which celluloid can capture flashes of life and depths of feeling,” writes Stephanie Zacharek in the New York Times. “The ghostly soul of the novel is the section detailing the making of Claude’s masterwork, the story of a mysterious, consumptive widow . . . who runs a remote hotel where traveling salesmen might stop, at their peril, for the night.” Reviewing the book for the Washington Post, Alexander C. Kafka suggests that Smith “has the historical grounding of E. L. Doctorow, the character discernment of Alice McDermott, and the bold whimsy of Mark Helprin.” At Literary Hub, Smith himself writes about how his research took him to the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and how the works he saw there “began to teach me how to listen to my characters and their world in a whole new way as a writer. And they reminded me of narrative lessons that I thought I’d already mastered.”

From New Directions comes Sam Bett’s new translation of Yukio Mishima’s 1961 novel Star, “an apt introduction to Mishima’s preoccupations,” as Jan Wilm puts it in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The story centers on the actor Rikio, who’s playing “a tough yakuza in a mediocre B-movie similar to the ones in which Mishima had acted himself. Mishima writes [about] the task of waiting around for another scene, another take, so vividly that it is impossible not to feel what Rikio feels, that the role supersedes the life.”

Television

New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2016, talks with Eric Farwell of the Paris Review—and of course, with David Remnick on the New Yorker Radio Hour—about her new collection, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. “One of the things this book is about,” she tells Farwell, “is expanding the conversation around television past the handful of shows that are continually acclaimed, which are often pricey cable dramas that are gritty, solemn, masculine, and maybe violent. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is talk about shows, like Jane the Virgin, that are beautiful, ambitious, and wonderful, but are in a category that people have been trained to condescend to.”

Reviewing I Like to Watch for the Washington Post, Jessica M. Goldstein notes that “critics and audiences were once resistant to Nussbaum’s case: That television could be great, and not because it was ‘novelistic’ or ‘cinematic’ but because it was, simply, television, ‘episodic, collaborative, writer-driven, and formulaic’ by design.” And now? “That obnoxious guy who used to brag that he didn’t own a TV can now be seen holding court over cocktails about how you must watch Fleabag.

Matt Zoller Seitz, the television critic for New York magazine, author of The Wes Anderson Collection, and coauthor of The Sopranos Sessions, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of A Lie Agreed Upon: The Deadwood Chronicles, which he’s calling “a peculiar, obsessive collector’s item/art object.” With critical essays on every episode of David Milch’s HBO series, interviews with the players, an introduction by novelist Megan Abbott, and illustrations by Max Dalton, the book will be designed to resemble a late nineteenth-century Bible.

New and Forthcoming

A few years ago, filmmakers Joanna Hogg (Exhibition, The Souvenir) and Adam Roberts, cofounders of the collective A Nos Amours, organized the most complete retrospective ever staged of Chantal Akerman’s work on film and video. Now they’ve collected all the research and writing that went into the project, and the Chantal Akerman Retrospective Handbook, with a foreword by Laura Mulvey, will be out in September.

Recent publications by and about Akerman top the latest books roundup at Sabzian, where you can also read about The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film by the late Gilberto Perez, Telling Invents Told, “the first anthology of writings by British artist and filmmaker Lis Rhodes, with texts dating from the 1970s to the present,” and many more titles.

Meantime, a new revised and expanded edition of The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image, a collection edited by Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell, and Catherine Grant, is now out from the excellent Montreal-based independent publisher caboose.

And to wrap with a long, rewarding scroll, Raquel Stecher has put together a string of links and covers for books on film set to appear from now until the end of the year.

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